In Gulf Spill Aftermath, Oil Workers Lack an Advocate

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010 at 6:00 am

Response crews attempted to salvage the burning remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April. (U.S. Coast Guard/ZUMApress.com)

The largest oil spill in U.S. history has received no absence of congressional scrutiny. Yet as lawmakers continue to focus their examinations on the environmental, economic and energy implications of the disaster, a number of labor advocates are beginning to wonder: What about the workers?

[Congress1] Eleven men were killed, and dozens more injured, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April about 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana. The youngest victim, Shane Roshto of Franklin County, Mississippi, was 22; the oldest, Keith Blair Manuel of Eunice, Louisiana, was 56. None of the bodies was recovered.

Yet their stories have become mere footnotes beneath the other narratives that quickly monopolized the national headlines — particularly the environmental and economic threats posed by the millions of gallons of crude oil that have gushed into the Gulf of Mexico since the blast.

Worker advocates are quick to acknowledge the severity of the ongoing leak. Still, many also warn that ignoring the worker safety issues exposed by the tragedy would be a mistake, especially considering that hundreds of oil and gas rigs — among the most statistically dangerous workplaces in the country — remain active off the nation’s shores.

“The worker safety issue has been completely lost in this story,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy group. “It’s one of the biggest industrial disasters in recent history, and yet Congress [views it] the same as the public: They’re not seeing it as a worker safety issue.”

Federal statistics support O’Connor’s call for concern. Between 2003 and 2008, 646 oil and gas workers were killed on the job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including 120 in 2008 — more than twice the number killed in all other mining-related accidents. That year, the oil and gas industry accounted for more than 10 percent of all workplace fatalities resulting from fires and explosions. And offshore rigs are hardly immune. Between 2001 and 2009, 60 offshore workers were killed on the job, while more than 1,600 were injured, according to the Minerals Management Service.

The reaction to the Deepwater Horizon incident contrasts sharply with the response to another recent industrial disaster: the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia that killed 29 workers and almost killed a 30th. In the wake of that tragedy, it was concern for the well-being of the miners that captivated lawmakers and spurred their indignation.

“[Miners] deserve nothing less than a safe working environment, and an employer who respects and values their safety,” Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) said in April, echoing the sentiments of many colleagues. “We must reexamine the health and safety laws we have put into place and what more may need to be done to avoid future loss of life.”

Since then, three separate labor panels — the Senate HELP Committee, the Senate Appropriations Labor Subcommittee, and the House Education and Labor Committee — have examined the Upper Big Branch accident.

None of those panels has held hearings on the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Senate Democratic leaders were quick to call Gulf spill hearings in the energy, environment and homeland security committees. And in the House, both the energy and natural resources panels have examined the disaster, while the head of the government oversight committee has launched an investigation into the actions of federal regulators prior to the accident. But none of the scrutiny has focused on worker safety.

Part of the reason is likely jurisdictional. Unlike mine safety — which is monitored by a branch of the Labor Department (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) and therefore overseen by Congress’ labor panels — offshore drill rig safety is a responsibility split between the Minerals Management Service, a part of the Interior Department, and the Coast Guard. Neither agency falls under the watch of Congress’ labor experts. (A provision of a 1970 labor law has allowed both the MMS and the Coast Guard to preempt the oversight authority of the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, which focuses exclusively on workplace safety.)

Critics of that arrangement contend that the other responsibilities of the MMS and the Coast Guard dilute their concentration on occupational safety. Peg Seminario, safety and health director for the AFL-CIO, suggested that as a result of the 1970 law, the wrong agencies are in charge of overseeing offshore oil rigs. “Those most focused on worker safety and the environment — OSHA and the EPA — don’t have a say in this,” she said. “It’s an area that clearly needs attention.”

Calls seeking comment from the MMS and the Coast Guard were not returned.

The Obama administration has taken some steps to prevent similar disasters from occurring in the future. Last Thursday, the administration acknowledged that the safety rules for offshore rigs have been lacking, announcing strict new operating requirements for those projects, as well as a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling. And faced with criticisms that the MMS’ duties — which include oil rig leasing, revenue collection and safety enforcement — are conflicting, the Interior Department recently split the agency into three separate parts, one of which will focus exclusively on the “oversight, safety, and environmental protection in all offshore energy activities.”

Meanwhile, congressional labor leaders are urging worker safeguards where they do have jurisdiction in the Gulf region: on land. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, wrote to OSHA on Thursday seeking assurances that the agency is protecting workers involved in the cleanup efforts, some of whom have been hospitalized with headaches, nausea and vomiting.

“Much is still unknown about the long-term health effects of chemicals utilized in this cleanup,” Miller wrote.

“Especially given the health and safety track record of [BP], heightened vigilance is necessary to ensure that every person aiding the cleanup is provided the necessary information, training and equipment to protect themselves.”

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Comment posted June 1, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

Another group of workers that haven't been focused on are the people cleaning up the oil on the shores. Are they getting the proper training and safety equipment to avoid chemical exposure? I've heard reports of overwhelming gas fumes in communities. What's it like along the coast itself, where everyone is raking and shoveling away?


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Comment posted June 4, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

My husband worked as a senior marine officer on the Deepwater Horizon for several years, hired by TransOcean under contract to British Petroleum. I can’t reveal our names, because he still works in the oil business and is afraid he will be blackballed if he speaks out. While drilling on the Deepwater Horizon in a deep sea location, they were encountering problems causing them to dump a huge quantity of drilling mud and other contaminants into the Gulf. They were exceeding all their watch circles and needed to perform an emergency disconnect. The Captain requested permission to perform the emergency disconnect to the onshore executives at TransOcean, who contacted the onshore execs at BP. The word came back from BP and I quote: “We are paying $400,000 a day for this rig and we don’t care what you are spilling. Just keep drilling.”

BP subsequently paid a multi-million dollar fine for environmental damages from that incident, but clearly they did not then and did not on April 20 give a flip about the Gulf of Mexico or the safety of the men and women risking their lives to perform their jobs. The government must investigate this to the fullest and do everything possible to assure that the onshore execs who consistently demonstrated disregard for regulations and safety be brought to justice. Don’t blame the people trying to earn a living – blame the people who tell them what to do and when to do it.

Obviously it is critically important to understand precisely what went wrong.
BP and TransOcean officials testified to Congress that there were 3 consecutive reports within the 2 previous days showing that they were taking on a dangerous amount of gas from under the seafloor. They also testified that there was a 4th report that showed it was safe to resume drilling. However, both companies’ vast army of the best computers money can buy mysteriously lost all data from 3 p.m. onward the day of the explosion. I have a Master's in Computer Science, and I can guarantee you the odds of that happening are microscopically tiny. Expert computer forensic analysis of the computers at BP and TransOcean might be able to turn up some of the “mysteriously missing” information if they haven’t managed to destroy it yet.


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If you want to hear a recent interview with the BP Safety Officer, Scot Rudolph, the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) talked to him about the worker's safetyat the incident site and the unified command. Rudolph also reflects on lessons learned after 100 days. To listen to the MP3 Audio, go to: http://bit.ly/aA1sNW


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